Over the past few years, we have heard much talk about carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which has done little except raise even more questions about the viability of this technology. Recently, more clean technology companies have emerged on the scene that strive to turn dirty carbon emissions into clean profits.
One such firm is Skyonic Corporation, based in Austin, Texas. With its SkyMine technology, flue gases from coal can be blended with water and heat. The mixture then passes through a membrane, which scrubs out various gases and compounds. Out goes greenhouse gases and toxins including sulfur dioxide (SOx), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and mercury. The result? Sodium bicarbonate, better knows as baking soda.
Skyonic, led by its founder, Joe Jones, have worked on this process since 2005. The company spent several years rigorously testing the technology, and now it has opened its first facility at Capitol Aggregates’ San Antonio cement plant, one of the largest in the United States, and powered by coal. The pairing is perfect: cement production is one of the most polluting industries globally, and much of the energy fueling the San Antonio metropolitan area comes from coal.
The venture, costing between US$75 and $100 million dollars, has backing from a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and was awarded US$3 million from a US Department of Energy grant. If successful, Skyonic will engender numerous benefits: less energy will be used to create the industrial byproducts than what would have been necessary if traditional manufacturing techniques were used; up to 75,000 metric tons of CO2 will be removed from Capitol Aggregates’ plant; and the technology is scalable and flexible, with potential use at distilleries, refineries, power generators, and other manufacturing facilities.
Best of all, there is a realistic chance and other income streams for Skyonic and its clients. The baking soda generated in the San Antonio pilot project will be useful for animal feed, glass manufacturing, and in the long term, biofuel production from algae. The firm should also recoup its investment in as little as three years, if all goes smoothly.
Skyonic’s venture comes at a compelling time: most agencies see carbon emissions rising in the next several decades, and in the short-term, the EPA is phasing in greenhouse gas emission regulations while mandating permit requirements for large, carbon-producing manufacturing plants. Instead of being another liability and cost, converting industrial waste could actually spark another revenue stream. Let’s be cautious and check the numbers in a few years, but we have some promise here.
We are seeing a lot of hand-wringing over the Senate dragging its feet on the climate bill. But as clean technologies become more cost effective, there is a chance market forces would help heal our planet. Small steps indeed, but entrepreneurship in this space will not stall anytime soon.